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How to get better sleep, naturally

Sleep can be frustratingly elusive at times. That bedtime friend. Peaceful, relaxing, calm, soothing sleep. Sometimes you can spend hours trying to sleep with no luck, your mind is just wide awake, running a mile-a-minute. Other times, you have aches, pains and other potential problems keeping you up. Yet, you know if you could just get to sleep, some of those aches might be relieved. Headaches anyone?

Perhaps it’s not even that. Maybe it’s the noises. You can hear creaking, dripping, or the wildlife outside in the dark. You are almost asleep, but you hear movement somewhere. Footsteps on the roof maybe? What was that sound?

Familiar?

Fortunately, there is a lot that you can do to help improve your sleep naturally and ease your body off to the land of nod.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors are the things around you. The things you see, feel, hear and smell. You can make changes here that help you to sleep better.

Make time for the sunset

The sun plays a big part in our sleep cycles. According to the Sleep Foundation, sunlight regulates our sleeping patterns. Melatonin is a hormone that is produced naturally in our bodies in sync with levels of light. More light = less melatonin. Less light = more melatonin. 

Lights can confuse our body clocks, and even simple things like changes in light levels in summer when the days are longer (particularly in places further away from the Equator like Victoria and Tasmania) can throw off our internal clocks. 

In Winter, when days are shorter, all the lights we use inside our houses can trick our body clocks. The sun goes down in the evening, but inside your home, does it get darker? Do you see the sun fall off the edge of the world? At some point, the sunlight gets dim enough that you have to turn the lights on, but that might well be before the sun has gone down. In which case, the light levels remain reasonably constant.

Perhaps you are at work in Winter, and the sun goes down before you leave. When I lived in Sydney, I’d leave work in Winter, and it was dark already. I missed the sunset entirely. When I arrived home, the house lights would be on, and that was that.

If you don’t have a lot of windows in your home, or workplace, you might find that you miss the slow fall of the sun over the horizon.

To try and keep your body clock in tune, especially as days get longer and shorter, make time to catch the sunset. Research by GE in developing LED lights to assist with sleep found that the orange and yellow hues we are used to seeing in sunsets help to stimulate melatonin production. If you can see the sunset from where you usually spend the evenings inside your house, that’s awesome! If not try and put yourself somewhere that has windows, or even better, outside.

Australian Sunset
Image by Matthew Brown

Other ideas to see the natural change in light (depending on your situation) might include:

  • Sit on the patio
  • Move your dinner table to a part of the house that has lots of windows.
  • Go for an evening walk, ride, or some other form of outdoor activity.
  • Read a book in a comfy chair where the sunset is visible

If you wanted to put yourself out there, you could find a good seat and take 20 minutes to watch the sun go to sleep for the day. If you can get a good view of it, even better. Sunsets can be absolutely gorgeous, and so often we miss them with our busy schedules!

Seek out the darkness

Continuing with melatonin production and the effects of light on your body, make sure that your bedroom is as dark as possible – close the block out curtains tightly before you go to bed (if you have them). If you don’t have block out curtains, make sure as little light gets in as possible. 

If you have a street light outside like I used to, you might want to come up with a solution to ensure it doesn’t disturb you. My bedroom is, unfortunately, located at the front of the house directly opposite a street light. The window only had Venetian blinds on it, so this left a few centimetres around each side of the window that let light in. To add misery to misfortune, the only place in the room that worked for our bed to be located (it’s a really small master bedroom), meant that the street light was glittering through those couple of centimetres straight across my pillow all night long. Not good. I ended up installing block out curtains, I couldn’t handle it.

Tangent aside, next, ensure all the lights are off (obvious right?) and cover any lights that you can’t turn off. One example is the peephole in the door if applicable (eg when you are staying in a hotel). These let in a remarkable amount of light.

Another example that I find particularly annoying when I stay at hotels is the television power LED. Especially when they are directly in front of the bed. The red LED’s don’t bother me as much, but pretty much any other colour can be bothersome and blue is the worst. Blue light is known to disrupt sleep, so try to get rid of or block these if you can. This includes the little LEDs in chargers.

I, personally, am a fan of reducing light throughout the house at least an hour prior to bed, but this isn’t always possible, especially if you have children about. I have one of these Philips Hue systems that let me dim the lights and switch the colours to deep oranges. There is actually a flickering candle mode that I quite like before bed. Switching your lights to these sunset-esque colours can help to signal to your body that you are going to bed soon. Melatonin station here I come!

What if you need to get up in the night? Well…if you can manage in the dark that is awesome – I always try to as much as possible, but it isn’t always safe or practical. Middle of the night cat crazy time anyone (if you’ve ever had a pet cat in the house, you’ll know what I’m talking about)? 

If you need to use some light, I would suggest the screen of a smartphone with night mode turned on and the brightness down. This keeps the light to a minimum and reduces the amount of blue light, so it should be the least disruptive to your sleep. I have seen some people go as far as putting red cellophane over their lights so that they are always red light only, meaning they can turn their lights on at night with minimal impact. I’m not a fan of going this far, personally. 

If you have smart bulbs like the Philips Hue, you can also set them to emit a dim red light, giving you more visibility with less impact on your melatonin levels. This, in turn, should help to ensure the lights don’t disturb your ability to get back to sleep.

Immerse yourself in aromas that help you to sleep

Aromatherapy isn’t new. It’s a practice that evidence suggests has been in use for at least 6000 years. There are a number of naturally occurring scents that will help you to sleep, and Iamme has formulated a blend called Sweet Dreams that is specifically designed to relax your mind and help you drift off to sleep. 

While not formulated as sleep aids, two of Arianrhod’s other blends can also assist and I personally use all three in rotation depending on the time that I turn the diffuser on and how I’m feeling.

Sweet Dreams Essential Oil Blend: This essential oil blend is formulated precisely for the purpose of helping you to relax into the warm embrace of sleep. This is one of my personal favourite essential oil blends in the Arianrhod Aromatics range.

Unwind Essential Oil Blend: Designed to help your body to relax and unwind after a stressful day. This can be a good one to use earlier in the evening, but it is still a great option at bedtime.

Peace Essential Oil Blend: This one isn’t exactly a ‘restful’ aroma, Iamme calls it ‘spicy’, and I’d agree with that. Peace helps to clear your mind and bring it to a state of calm. I actually quite like to have this one diffusing while I work.

If you prefer a simpler aroma, lavender is known to provide a calming, soothing effect making it the perfect choice to use around your home. A couple of drops of Arianrhod Aromatics Lavender Essential Oil in your diffuser will help you relax before bed.

There are multiple approaches to aromatic immersion, including essential oil diffusers, candles and pillow mists.

A pillow mist, as the name might suggest, is a fragrant blend designed to be sprayed on your pillow. However, they can also be used on other linens around your home to immerse yourself in aromatic delights. Spray them on your curtains, bedsheets, fabric lounges and armchairs or anywhere else that you spend a lot of time to help soothe your mind. Many pillow mists include essential oils that have antibacterial properties so this can also help to remove odour-causing bacteria at the same time.

Arianrhod Aromatics has three pillow mists that have been carefully mixed to help you drift off to sleep.

Sweet Dreams Pillow Mist: A slight variation on the Sweet Dreams Essential Oil Blend, the Arianrhod Aromatics Sweet Dreams Pillow Mist is formulated to create a relaxing, calming environment.

Calm Mind Pillow Mist: Has been blended to create an atmosphere of relaxation, helping your mind to slow down, ready for sleep.

Lavender Dream Pillow Mist: A delicate blend of lavender and sandalwood that will have you feeling like you are in a luxurious day spa, pampered and ready for a relaxing sleep. This one is my wife’s favourite.

There are other ways you can leverage essential oils to immerse yourself in aromas that will help you to sleep, including on potpourri and choosing moisturisers that have been formulated with sleep-friendly essential oils. Another alternative is to choose a fragrance-free moisturiser and mix in a few drops of your chosen essential oil blends.

Learn more about the benefits of using essential oils in your daily routine.

Mimic natural temperature variations

In the real world, also known as outside where there is no heating or air-conditioning to maintain stable temperatures, there are natural fluctuations throughout the day and night. I’m sure you’ve noticed that even on a scorching summer’s day, it won’t be as hot in the morning when you first get up. The temperature will increase throughout the day to around 1 pm.

Once the sun starts to make its descent in the afternoon, the temperature slowly begins to drop. After the sun dips below the horizon altogether, the temperature falls further and continues throughout the night until dawn. Most of the time. Sometimes the weather is crazy and it stays hot all night, but that is the exception.

At dawn, as the sun pokes it’s cheery cheeks over the horizon again, the process repeats with a gradual increase in temperature.

With this in mind:

If you are using climate control devices in your house, turn the temperature up after you get out of bed in the morning. Even just a small amount can help. Turn it down before you go to bed.

Air Con Remote Control
Image by Arif Wachyudin from Pixabay

You will sleep better when the temperature is a few degrees lower than it was while you were awake. So turning down the thermostat helps mimic that natural change and also reduces the chances of waking up hot and sweaty during the night.

I try to avoid running climate control too much, but when it’s one of those freezing cold nights, you don’t have much choice. Sometimes I find small temperature tweaks are all that is required, and other times I find more significant changes work better. Just experiment and see what works best for you.

Behavioural factors

Cut the caffeine early

I understand, caffeine is the well of life and you simply cannot exist without it. You know what though? That’s only because so many of us have built up such a high tolerance to it (or because your heart medication puts you to sleep anyway, there’s also a few other potential reasons, but the most common is tolerance).

Just because you can drink a cup of coffee or an energy drink before bed and then go to sleep doesn’t mean you should.

Cut out caffeinated drinks as early as practical (and food, yes tiramisu, I’m talking about you – I once had tiramisu at a restaurant on the Gold Coast that was unexpectedly soaked in their strongest blend. I was up all night). I’m talking really early, somewhere around 2 pm early. Healthline indicates that the half-life of caffeine in your body is five hours. So if you have a cup of coffee at 2 pm, half of it will be gone by 7 pm. Most of the effects will be worn off by this time, but it takes another 5 hours for half of what is left to be gone. So at midnight, your body still has 25% of that caffeine cruising around.

For me, caffeine disrupts my sleep for approximately 8 hours after ingestion.

Coffee Cup
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

On a somewhat related note, caffeine is also a diuretic. That means that you will need to visit the lavatory more frequently. Who needs that in the middle of the night, potentially more than once, to relieve that pressure? Not me! I have not seen any studies to confirm my hypothesis, but I suspect there are a lot of people up through the night because of caffeine-related movements. There are more than enough possible disturbances without extra toilet stops on the sleep highway.

Remember, most black teas have caffeine in them too, as do energy drinks and a number of soft drinks. If you need the hot drink experience before bed, consider a hot chocolate or herbal tea instead. There are a couple of excellent herbal tea options that can cause drowsiness which we’ll talk about in the next section on natural sleep aids. Even if you don’t go with one that causes drowsiness, herbal tea is an excellent alternative to caffeine.

Use natural sleep aids

Herbal teas really are amazing! There is a wide range of choice from many different brands that have herbal ingredients to help soothe your mind and body before bed. However, both peppermint and chamomile tea are known to help to soothe the mind and cause drowsiness. Kind of ironic considering peppermint can also be energising! Look for teas that include one of those ingredients. You can also get herbal teas that are solely peppermint or chamomile and these are excellent choices too. Regardless of your choice, herbal teas are a great way to have a hot drink in the evening that is actually going to help you sleep rather than risk keeping you awake.

Read more about the benefits of peppermint and chamomile.

Other natural options include magnesium supplements or creams, and lavender scents. A great option that combines magnesium with aromatherapy in a lotion is the Arianrhod Aromatics MagHemp Sleep Lotion

MagHemp Sleep Lotion is a carefully crafted blend of well known natural sleep aids, magnesium and hemp in the form of a gentle moisturising lotion infused with essential oils that assist with sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping and want a simple solution, MagHemp Sleep Lotion combines aromatherapy with magnesium into a lotion that you simply massage into your feet before bed.

Grant told us:

I’ve been using it [MagHemp Sleep Lotion] for the past few months and found it so effective at eliminating calf twitches and helping get back to sleep quickly after waking during the night that I just placed an order for the 250ml size. Thanks.

-Grant

Don’t eat just before bed

Your digestion doesn’t stop while you sleep, but it does slow down. What this means is if your stomach is full right before bed, you may not finish digesting this food until morning. The problem with eating right before bed that can be a potentially bigger issue is that it disrupts your stomach’s regular healing process.

So, if your stomach is unable to heal itself efficiently, it can leave you feeling unpleasant in the morning and potentially wake you up throughout the night.

Spaghetti
Image by Divily from Pixabay

If you go to bed on a full stomach, this means you are also going to be doing your digestion horizontally instead of vertically. Depending on how you sleep, you could be putting pressure on your stomach and esophagus. Full of food, that pressure can cause discomfort, and regardless of position, you are more likely to experience symptoms like indigestion, heartburn and acid reflux.

It won’t work for everyone, but I find starting my dinner around 5-6 pm and going to bed around 10:30 pm works well for me. This timeframe gives my body a reasonable window to digest the food I’ve put into it before I go to sleep and my digestion slows. I’m not perfect, mind you (I know, who would have guessed?), and sometimes a late-night snack is required. Keep it as minimal as possible.

Here’s an excellent video from Nutrition Facts about the benefits of eating early.

Don’t overeat in the evening (or at all)

Overeating in the evening can also contribute to an unwell tummy during the night simply because you still have food in your stomach when you go to bed.

The closer your bedtime is to your dinner time, the less you should eat. Less food in your stomach means less for your body to digest before you sleep. This logic stands true even if you eat dinner around 5-6 pm. A massive meal may not get digested before bed, regardless of whether you are going to bed at 10 pm or 2 am.

Salads
Image by silviarita from Pixabay

Also of note regarding overeating and digestion: Studies have found that your body needs more time to fully digest low-fibre foods like meat than it does for high-fibre foods like vegetables. So making sure to have lots of fibre at dinner (and your other meals) will assist your body to digest your food promptly.

Make sure you have enough food

In contrast to overeating food, you also need to make sure you have enough. If you don’t have enough energy reserves when you go to bed, then your sleep can be disrupted.

If your brain runs out of fuel while you are asleep, it will wake you up. This is called nocturnal hypoglycemia. I first learned of this phenomenon listening to a Tim Ferris podcast on a completely unrelated topic. Apparently it happens more often than you might think. I’ve definitely experienced it myself.

So, what does the brain need to get you through the night?

Basically, glucose. Overnight, your brain has to oversee the daily maintenance and repair operations in your body. If it doesn’t have enough glucose to do that, then you are going to have a problem.

If you find yourself inextricably waking up during the night, try having a tablespoon of honey 30-minutes before bed or when you wake up in the night. This small amount won’t be enough to make you feel ill, but it will give your brain the glucose it needs to function while you sleep.

If honey isn’t practical (or you don’t eat it), have an apple, banana or other fruit before bed. A couple of grapes or berries if you wake up in the night should also do the trick. Keep the quantity minimal, so it doesn’t sit in your tummy all night. Again, try to have the fruit at least half an hour before you go to bed so your body has time to do some work on it before you are horizontal.

Blueberries
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Go for a walk or do some other exercise

I like to throw a 30-minute brisk walk into my evenings (when I can). About half an hour after dinner is sufficient for me to wait to avoid getting a stitch. Leave it an hour though if you need to. It doesn’t have to be high-intensity, but the brisker, the better. Alternatively, go cycling or do some other form of exercise in the evening, preferably outside where you can see the light change.

Cycling at sunset
Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

Exercising serves a few purposes:

  • To increase your metabolism. A higher metabolic rate will help burn off any extra food that you might have consumed throughout the day, including at dinner time.
  • To expend energy before bed. Exercise helps to burn off some of the excess energy you might have and tire your body out before bed.
  • See the sunset. Kill two figurative birds with one politically correct stone, see the light change and exercise at the same time.

If you live in an apartment building, Try climbing stairways. Call me crazy, but I’m quite a fan of this (when I’m somewhere that has stairs). If I climb 12, 24, or perhaps even 36 flights of stairs before bed, I’m going to be pretty tired.

Sleep Apps & Wearables

Wearable devices have been around for a few years now and they are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Wearables like Fitbits, Apple Watches and other smart watches are able to track and record data about your sleep. Combined with recommendations to help improve the quality of your sleep, they are great tools but can be a bit pricey. 

Apps like Sleep Cycle have gotten so smart that they no longer require any wearable technology at all. Instead, Sleep Cycle runs on your smartphone and listens to your breathing. Doing so, it is able to identify when you are asleep and how deep your sleep is. While the concept of an app being able to not only listen to and understand my breathing but also separate it from the other sounds in the room (including another person asleep beside you) is mind boggling and a little bit creepy, the data it provides is remarkable.

Many of these kinds of apps, including Sleep Cycle, are free with paid upgrades. Even the free versions usually provide plenty of insights to help you learn about your sleep and what you might be able to do to improve it. Paid versions include extra features like ambient sounds designed to help you to sleep.

Sleep Cycle Screenshot

And if all else fails…

If all else fails, count your breathing – It’s kind of like counting sheep. I find if I’m laying there awake, consciously breathing in and out while counting each inward breath puts me to sleep. If my thoughts drift off to other things, I just bring them back to counting breaths and focus on that. Before long I’m watching eyelid movies. It’s a pretty basic concept, but it really does help, especially combined with aromatherapy.

Why not just do this to start with? Well, I find it usually doesn’t work as the first port of call. That might be different for you. Give it a try and see. Everyone is different, and to be honest, every time you have trouble sleeping is probably going to be different. For me, I find that this works best when I’ve already been laying in bed for a while, wide awake, and to be honest, I’m probably stewing over something. Chances are I haven’t even realised I’m stewing until I’ve been awake for hours.

Aromatherapy helps to calm the mind, and then giving myself something basic to focus on in place of whatever it is that has my mind doing somersaults can help to let go of whatever that is for long enough that my brain can actually relax for long-enough to let me go to sleep.

That’s it!

These are all things that my wife and I do to make sure we always get  the best sleep we can. We aren’t perfect though. Sometimes things happen that throw our sleep cycles out for days. Using the concepts I’ve outlined above though, we are able to get back into good sleep habits quickly. Good quality sleep makes a world of difference to my day, and I bet it will to yours too.

Let us know your favourite sleep tips in the comments box below.

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